Essential Passage by Character: Caliban

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Abhorrèd slave,
Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other. When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known. But thy vile race,
Though thou didst learn, had that in't which good natures
Could not abide to be with; therefore wast thou
Deservedly confined into this rock,
Who hadst deserved more than a prison.
You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 417-431


Causing the storm to take advantage of the fate that has brought within his grasp, Prospero explains his past history to his daughter Miranda. She remembers little, since she was only three when their banishment occurred. Since that time, the only beings she has seen are her father, spirits such as Ariel, and the half-breed monster, Caliban, who functions as their slave. Causing Miranda to fall asleep, Prospero summons Ariel to determine the locations of the passengers of the ship. Assured by the spirit that all is well and all prisoners are accounted for and separated, Prospero commands him to bring Ferdinand to the cave where they humans are living.

Awakening Miranda, Prospero continues his tale. He then summons the slave-monster Caliban, who arrives sullenly. Caliban reminds his master that this island home had belonged to him before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda. Caliban had been living there alone, after the death of his mother, the witch Sycorax. Less than human and living like an animal, Caliban had been tamed and “civilized” by Prospero and Miranda.

Prospero castigates Caliban as being ungrateful for the kindness shown to him. Prospero says that he has treated Caliban with only humane care, in return for which Caliban tried to rape Miranda.

Miranda herself enters the conversation, stating that Caliban has resisted any attempt to show him kindness. He has rejected the efforts of the humans to turn him toward goodness. Miranda herself had taught him how to speak. At their arrival on the island, Prospero and Miranda found Caliban gibbering, without any recognizable understanding of language. Through patience and kindness, Miranda gave him words. But despite his now sentient speech, Caliban’s sub-human nature made him impossible to live with. Miranda states that it is only right that Caliban has been deserted on this island, since he deserves more than mere prison.

In response, Caliban states that he learned language for the sole purpose of cursing the humans, which he does repeatedly. He now curses her for teaching him language.


Caliban, the offspring of the Algerian witch Sycorax and some demon spirit, is the original inhabitant of the island. Living like an animal before the arrival of Prospero and Miranda, he has been brought to a near-human condition, only to be forced into slavery. The payment for his freedom from savagery is slavery as a savage. He has been brought to consciousness to become conscious of what he has lost, which is freedom.

Caliban’s understanding of freedom is of a most basic nature, that of living as he wants without restraint and without duty. He values this type of freedom, even if it makes him little more than an animal. The reason being, he has no other idea of what freedom is. The freedom of bestiality as opposed to the “freedom” of humanity. True freedom, to make one’s own choices and to choose to make those choices within the realm of moral responsibility, is a foreign concept to him. Prospero has denied this knowledge to him in order to keep him in slavery. It is no wonder that Caliban attacked Miranda, since he has been taught language, but not morality.

Yet Caliban is not the only slave on the island. The nature spirit Ariel is also bound unwillingly to the service of Caliban. Ariel, having been rescued from his tree prison where he had been placed by Caliban’s mother, is a more willing servant, yet is still longing for freedom. In a contrast to Caliban, Ariel responds willingly to Prospero’s commands, but without looking forward to the promised day of release. He is a cheerful servant, willing to help Prospero accomplish his goals. Yet he still, as does Caliban, seeks his freedom. Despite his willingness to service, Ariel, like Caliban, is castigated by Prospero for his “ungratefulness.”

In a contrast between the two servants, it is obvious that outward appearance has some measure of cause to the treatment they receive at the hands of the humans. Ariel is graceful and attractive, while Caliban has a monstrous appearance. Ariel is treated with kindness as a noble creature, while Caliban is treated with cruelty and contempt. Their appearance predicts their treatment; their response to their treatment reflects their appearance. They are trapped in a circle, a circle of paradoxes that always reflects the lives of those held in bondage.

Though most likely not consciously developed by Shakespeare, the character of Caliban can be seen as symbolic of the European attitude toward the aboriginal people encountered on the voyages of discovery. The treatment of the natives as “sub-human,” the product of the devil, and unable to be fully brought into the realm of the human, is reflected in Prospero’s treatment of Caliban. The charges of ingratitude were repeated ad infinitum throughout early American history, in the Europeans’ encounters and treatment of the native Americans, as well as the Africans brought over for the sole purpose of servitude. Caliban especially reflects the native Americans, who, like Caliban, had been the original inhabitants of the land. Conflict arose when the combination of distrust and ignorance clashed, causing a cycle of violence that lasted for centuries.

The charge of ingratitude that is brought against Caliban by Prospero is both justified and understandable. Caliban has indeed been raised to a higher level of consciousness, more in tune with the humanity that is in him. Living like an animal, he was not in fact an animal. Prospero reconnected him with his true self. However, having done that, he pushed him back into the realm of the animal, making him a slave. Yet Prospero expects gratitude for the former, seeing that latter as the price that must be paid. Caliban pays the price, yet most unwillingly. He continues to see himself as more animal than human, as evidenced by his later subservience to Stephano, his new “god,” one who has the “magic” of alcohol. Caliban cannot see any other life than one of servitude. His only “freedom” is found in the freedom of choosing a new master.

Essential Passage by Character: Prospero

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

My brother and thy uncle, called Antonio—
I pray thee mark me, that a brother should
Be so perfidious—he whom next thyself
Of all the world I loved, and to him put
The manage of my state; as at that time
Through all the signories it was the first,
And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed
In dignity, and for the liberal arts
Without a parallel; those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies. Thy false uncle—
Dost thou attend me?
Sir, most heedfully.
Being once perfected how to grant suits,
How to deny them, who t'advance and who
To trash for over-topping, new created
The creatures that were mine, I say, or changed ’em,
Or else new formed ’em; having both the key
Of officer and office, set all hearts i'th’ state
To what tune pleased his ear, that now he was
The ivy which had hid my princely trunk,
And sucked my verdure out on't. Thou attend'st not!
O good sir, I do.
I pray thee mark me.
I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retired,
O'er prized all popular rate, in my false brother
Awakened an evil nature; and my trust,
Like a good parent, did beget of him
A falsehood, in its contrary as great
As my trust was, which had indeed no limit,
A confidence sans bound. He being thus lorded,
Not only with what my revenue yielded,
But what my power might else exact, like one
Who having into truth, by telling of it,
Made such a sinner of his memory
To credit his own lie, he did believe
He was indeed the duke; out o'th’ substitution,
And executing the outward face of royalty
With all prerogative; hence his ambition growing—
Dost thou hear?
Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.
To have no screen between this part he played
And him he played it for; he needs will be
Absolute Milan. Me, poor man, my library
Was dukedom large enough: of temporal royalties
He thinks me now incapable; confederates—
So dry he was for sway—with the King of Naples
To give him annual tribute, do him homage,
Subject his coronet to his crown, and bend
The dukedom, yet unbowed alas, poor Milan!—
To most ignoble stooping.
Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 81-134


As Prospero observes the shipwreck of his enemies, his daughter Miranda requests that he at last tell her the history of their past, including their life before being stranded on this island. Many times before she has requested her father to relate to her the story, but he has always balked, stating that there will come a time in which he will be open and honest with her. Now that his brother, along with the other men who were so instrumental in his betrayal and exile from Milan, Prospero concludes that the time is right.

Prospero tells Miranda that, as the Duke of Milan, he had been more interested in study than in the state. Leaving the day-to-day operations of running his domain to his brother Antonio, Prospero instead devoted himself to reading of books, especially in the esoteric arts of magic and alchemy. As he kept his head stuck in his books, Antonio not only managed the dukedom, but he also managed to sway many of the leaders to his side. He learned the subtle arts of granting preferment to men whose ambition matched his own. He also knew who to dismiss, as being a pull on his climb to power. Bit by bit, Antonio used Prospero’s power as his own, much as a parasitic ivy will grow on a tree and drained it of its life force.

Unaware of Antonio’s power grab, Prospero remained devoted to his studies, living much the life of seclusion. He was unaware that his people, even before Antonio’s acquisition of the reins of the state, did not hold such knowledge as in such high esteem as did he.

Prospero regrets that, because he was so inattentive to the goings-on around him, he provided an opportunity for Antonio’s evil nature to assert itself. As great as Prospero’s trust in his brother was, so great was Antonio’s evil.

With so much power and money, Antonio managed to convince himself that he was the true leader of Milan. Buying into his own lie, Antonio grabbed more and more of that which rightfully belonged to Prospero as the true Duke of Milan. There was no barrier between Antonio’s ambition and Antonio’s goal. What Antonio wanted, he received. In this case, it was control of the duchy of Milan that had been denied him by an accident of birth.

Yet still, Prospero ignored all this. To him, his library was enough. Antonio managed to convince the leaders of Milan that Prospero was no quite up to the requisite duties incumbent on a duke. In time, he convinced Alonso, the King of Naples, to be on his side, even if it meant paying a tribute. Milan had never stooped to such beggary as Antonio was doing, in order to gather his allies.

And thus, Antonio, along with Alonso, kidnapped Prospero, along with his three-year-old daughter, and set them adrift in the open sea. Outright murder was not an option because, though he had been distant and reclusive, Prospero was still loved by his people. The boat having been provisioned by Gonzalo, the two made their way to this island, where they have lived for the past twelve years.


In this passage, Prospero not only reveals his past to his daughter Miranda, he also reveals the complexities of his character. His transparency in the revelation of his weaknesses, shows that his studious nature also has wisely served him in the area of self-reflection. His wisdom, not just his knowledge, has identified him as a person in touch with his flaws, yet not perhaps with his inconsistencies.

Prospero shows himself to be a true Renaissance Man, at least in the beginning of his studies in the liberal arts. In the manner of Leonardo da Vinci, Prospero has devoted himself to the study and application of a great variety of academics, both traditional and esoteric. Eventually, such intellectual curiosity has led him into the realm of magic.

Because there was still a superstitious fear of witchcraft at the time of this play, Shakespeare made it clear that he was differentiating between “white magic,” used for the good of mankind, and “black magic,” used for mischief and even destruction. The juxtaposition of Prospero and Sycorax, the witch-mother of Caliban, is clearly used to make this differentiation.

Prospero admits to Miranda that his intellectual capabilities do not extend to the realm of human relationships. Though he can delve into the depths of magical insight, his insight into the true character of his brother Antonio is non-existent. He is blind to what his brother is doing, being too wrapped up in his own studies, his library was “dukedom large enough.” Because of this, he exposed himself, his daughter, and the people of Milan to the machinations of his evil brother Antonio.

In his humility, Prospero takes full blame for this situation. By ignoring the duties that were rightfully his responsibility and delegating too much to Antonio, he allowed the root of evil to spring up in his brother’s heart. It is because of this sense of responsibility and blame that Prospero eventually and easily forgives his brother, once the dukedom is returned to him.

This sense of responsibility toward his brother does not extend, however, to the non-human, especially to Caliban. With Ariel, Prospero keeps him enslaved, though it is a somewhat benignant slavery. With Caliban, the cruelty that Prospero condemns in Antonio’s heart rises up in his own. As Antonio has usurped Prospero’s domain, so has Prospero usurped that of Caliban. In a further cruelty, Prospero does not exile the former owner, but keeps him as a much abused slave, in a way that implicitly taunts Caliban of his descended state.

Prospero shows himself to be a man of strength of character nonetheless. Once all has been set right, he willingly gives up his magic powers. In a move reminiscent of Cincinnatus and George Washington, once the “battle has been won,” he relinquishes his authority and returns to his former duties. His act of full forgiveness to Antonio and Alonso reveals the compassion that is necessary in the heart of a noble ruler.

Essential Passage by Theme: Humanity

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[to Miranda] The fringèd curtains of thine eye advance
And say what thou seest yond.
What is't? A spirit?
Lord, how it looks about! Believe me, sir,
It carries a brave form. But ’tis a spirit.
No, wench, it eats and sleeps, and hath such senses
As we have, such. This gallant which thou seest
Was in the wreck, and but he's something stained
With grief, that's beauty's canker, thou mightest call him
A goodly person. He hath lost his fellows,
And strays about to find ’em
I might call him
A thing divine, for nothing natural
I ever saw so noble.
[Aside] It goes on, I see,
As my soul prompts it. [to Ariel] Spirit, fine spirit, I—II free
Within two days for this.
[Aside] Most sure, the goddess
On whom these airs attend! [to Miranda] Vouchsafe my
May know if you remain upon this island,
And that you will some good instruction give
How I my bear me here. My prime request,
Which I do last pronounce, is—O you wonder!—
If you be maid or no?
No wonder, sir,
But certainly a maid.
Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 480-507


Having raised the storm that wrecked the ship carrying his enemies, Prospero commands the assistance of Ariel, his spirit servant, to scatter the men in separate groups. Specifically, Ariel is to bring Ferdinand, the son of King Alonso of Naples, to the cave. Doing so, Ariel presents Ferdinand to Prospero and to Miranda.

Prior to this, the only people that Miranda has seen are her aged father, the spirit Ariel, and the half-human/half-demon Caliban. Seeing a man of her own age is a shock to her sensibilities. She is unsure what sort of creature he is. Ferdinand does not fit into the three categories of beings she knows: old man, spirit, monster. Thus, she believes, he must be something totally different.

Because of Ferdinand’s pleasant appearance, Miranda at first thinks he must be a spirit. Though different from Ariel, he is even more separated in appearance from her father and the hideous Caliban. Prospero corrects her saying that he eats, sleeps, and has senses just as he and Miranda do. He explains further to his daughter that Ferdinand is from the shipwreck that they witnessed. He points out that, though he is transfigured by the grief he feels at the supposed loss of his father, he is still a “goodly person.” He further explains that, at this moment, Ferdinand is trying to seek the companions that he has lost.

Miranda, still in awe at the sight of the first young man she has seen, objects that he is something more than human, perhaps even divine. She states that nothing natural, such as she and her father are, could ever look so noble.

Prospero, rather than being upset at Miranda’s evident attraction to Ferdinand, is in fact pleased. Though this is not something that he has planned, he sees Ferdinand as a worthy match for his daughter. For bringing such a worthy human to his human daughter, Prospero promises to free Ariel within two days.

Ferdinand ceases his wanderings when he catches sight of Miranda. In a parallel reaction, Ferdinand cannot believe that she is a mere human, but instead must be a divine goddess. This is, in fact, a literary allusion by Ferdinand, referring to Aeneas’ encounter with the goddess Venus disguised as a girl when he was shipwrecked at Carthage. Ferdinand approaches Miranda as a supplicant to the divine, praying that she will give him guidance on how to behave in her dominion. However, in order to make sure, he asks Miranda, whom he addresses as a “wonder,” if she is human and, most importantly, unmarried. Miranda assures him that she is no wonder but is in fact an unmarried human female.


Underlying this conversation is a question that runs through the background of the entire play: What does it mean to be human? Miranda is unfamiliar with any other humans but her father, so she predictably cannot place Ferdinand as either mortal or divine. Ferdinand does not resemble the aged appearance of Prospero, so Miranda quickly dismisses this categorization. Through her immediate physical attraction to him, she knows that he is far from the monstrosity of Caliban, therefore he must be more akin to the nature spirit Ariel. Yet, in point of fact, between Ariel and Caliban, technically Ferdinand is more closely related to the latter, since Caliban’s more was a human, despite being a witch.

Not only Miranda, but also Caliban and Ariel themselves wonder how far separated they are from being included in humanity. At the beginning of Act 5 Scene 1, Prospero asks Ariel, in reference to the nobility of Gonzalo, if he is not moved to tears. Ariel responds that, if he were human, he would indeed feel such an emotion. His implication is that he is not human and therefore does not feel any emotion. Yet Ariel, despite being a spirit, longs for his freedom. Caliban, too, desires to be returned to his own command, rather than be subject to the whims of Prospero. This desire for freedom from a servitude is based on part on willing subjection (rather than facing the consequences) might be a sign of their humanity. An animal would eventually become resigned to being “tamed,” while Ariel and Caliban always have their liberty in the uppermost part of their minds.

The categorization of Miranda of who is human and who is not presents an issue that was prevalent at the time of Shakespeare’s writing, yet would most likely not be addressed in a modern-day fashion. The Tempest is born out of the voyages of the discovery of the New World. With that discovery is the encounter of new races of people, hitherto unknown. Like Miranda’s meeting with Ferdinand, the confusion as to the humanity of these races was problematic. For many of the discoverers, the aborigines they encountered were so totally different that they were viewed (as was Caliban) as less human than otherwise. This enabled the conquerors to justify the treatment of them as less than humane. The concept of freeing these natives from their slavery to ignorance and superstition led to the belief that they should be grateful for the opportunity to be “saved” from their “heathen” culture. In connection with this, the enslavement of the indigenous people was seen as clearly justified.

While both Ariel and Caliban were enslaved, it is Caliban who is treated worse by Prospero and Miranda. Ariel is given his complete freedom, while Caliban (the “monster”) is not. In this case, physical appearance plays a large part in how “human” he was seen. He is to “other” to be given more than the most minimal kindness. In such a way, the European conquerors “categorized” the “inferior” races, based on external appearance. As Prospero justifies the difference in treatment of Ariel and Caliban, so the Europeans justified their treatment of the people they discovered in their own “brave new world.”

Thus this passage, in which Miranda is unsure of what makes a person “human” is representative of a much larger foundational worldview of the Shakespeare’s time. The fluid definition of “humanity” allowed for a much broader denial of human rights. Miranda’s exclamation in Act 5, “How beauteous mankind is! O, brave new world / That has such people in it!” was interpreted in a much narrower view that such a statement is today. In a world that was expanding the human family, Prospero and Miranda were instead limiting it.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access



Quotes in Context